Olivia Newton-John, the Australian pop singer and actress, has died aged 73. The news comes to us from the official Newton-John Facebook page. She died Monday at her Southern California ranch, according to her husband, John Easterling. In his post, he said: “Olivia has been a beacon of triumphs and hope for over 30 years, sharing her journey with breast cancer.” Olivia was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 and battled it for three decades.
Olivia Newton-John shot to fame in the early ’70s, thanks to several easy-listening pop radio hits, including “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow.” But her true iconic status came in 1978, when she won the role of Sandy Olsson in the film adaptation of the hit musical Fat. At the time, the 29-year-old singer thought she was way too old for the role and didn’t think she could do an American accent. John Travolta and the producers of Fat wanted her so badly for the role, they recreated the character of Sandy to be Australian.
Produced for only $6 million, Fat became a monster hit. The songs she was featured on, “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want” were all Billboard Top 5 hits, the latter of which was number 1. Her next film, the disco fantasy musical Xanadu, did not do so well at the box office or with critics. But Olivia’s songs from the movie, “Magic” and the titular “Xanadu,” were both big hits. And now the movie is a cult classic, so she got the last laugh there.
Olivia cemented her iconic status with the No. 1 hit song “Physical” in 1981. The video, which aired frequently on the brand new MTV, parodied the decade’s fixation with aerobics and the culture of training. But parody or not, millions copied Olivia’s jazzy headband look, and a huge ’80s fashion trend was born. It was the peak of his musical career. She only had a few hits after that and mostly retreated to a life of family and activism. But in those glorious years, she did enough to become an all-time icon.
As a child of Generation X myself, Fat and Xanadu were ubiquitous on my TV. I fell in love with the over-the-top glitz and whimsy of Xanadu especially since Olivia played a muse in this film, one of the real daughters of Zeus. Roller skating and bathing in the neon glow off the California coast is what it will always look like in my mind. And his music video for “Physical” had a surprise gay twist at the end. This marked a rare endorsement for anything LGBTQ in mainstream pop at the time. With a wink, Olivia let the gay community know she was an ally. And the little gay that I was at the time felt it too. It made me love him even more.
Olivia Newton-John was a pop culture icon and her work will live on forever. Right now this is the final image of Fat which remains etched in the minds of an entire generation. That of Sandy Olsson who takes off in the clouds, turns around and smiles at us. For her fights in real life and her role in pop culture, she truly deserved the reward that awaits her in those clouds.